Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo) is one of 20,000 North Korean defectors trying to build a new life in the South. He works as a driver but otherwise keeps to himself. It’s not that he’s shy, it’s that he’s focused on finding someone. His apartment walls are lined with maps and info, and one of his clients, the chairman of a controversial corporation, has been offering assistance in the search. When the chairman is killed, Ji not only becomes the police department’s prime suspect but also the target of the man behind the assassination.
An innocent man, wrongly accused of a crime he didn’t commit, is forced on the run from both the authorities and the real bad guys. The setup of the new Korean action/thriller, The Suspect, won’t win any awards for originality, but the script offers other additions that when combined with the numerous action sequences makes for a mostly compelling movie.
The other main players here are a mix of tough bad guys, tough good guys, and a delicate flower of a woman. Kim Seok-ho (Cho Seong-ha) is a government official aiming to make a power grab, and Colonel Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon) is the gung-ho military man hell bent on capturing (or killing) Ji. The good colonel, a graduate of an ops unit training program known for passing only 3% of the men who join, has crossed paths with Ji before. The two clashed while Ji was still working missions for the North, and while he escaped Min was left with a devastated unit.
Choi Kyeong-hee (Yoo Da-in) is a reporter looking for her big break. She thinks she found it in Ji’s story even before the assassination, but once everything blows up she’s forced to make some difficult decisions. She comes in handy throughout, but her smartest action just may be her decision to keep important documents and pieces of evidence in a Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance DVD case.
South Korean cinema has no shortage of action/thrillers that touch on the North/South conflict to some degree or another, and while Won Shin-yeon’s The Suspect isn’t quite on par with something like Secret Reunion or Shiri it remains an engaging and occasionally exciting film. At 137 minutes the film does test its own limits, but the script and steady punctuation of action scenes keep things moving.
The script actually takes an unusual stance on the conflict in its depiction of the murdered chairman. Not everything is as it seems, and while the enemies from the North are as evil as you’d expect there’s almost a refreshing sense of solidarity simmering beneath the surface. As strong as the bigger story is though, Ji’s personal one isn’t quite as effective as it could be at first. It’s partially a script issue, but for all of his physical prowess Gong doesn’t have the emotional gravitas to pull us along on his journey for far too much of the running time.
Politics aside though audiences will seek this one out for the action scenes, and unfortunately the balance between excitement and disappointment is a bit too even. The fights are presented with edits that are entirely too choppy and unwanted closeups on the participants. One fight late in the film features four participants engaging in two different simultaneous brawls, and it’s frequently confusing as to who we’re watching at any given moment. This isn’t an uncommon problem in action movies, but it’s especially frustrating here as the fighters seem more than capable in their action chops. The edits aren’t done to mask multiple takes or a lack of skill, they’re made simply as a directorial choice. Ideally the pendulum will swing back someday soon to the side of filmmakers who let the action impress and play out in wide shots, but until then we’ll have to just re-watch Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear a few more times.
Flaws included, the fights are still fun enough, but they actually take a back seat to the more impressive, bigger action sequences. Rooftop shenanigans, foot chases, and a car chase featuring a particularly cool method of bypassing a blockade all excite and energize
This is a solid action/thriller that should engage and entertain fans of Korean action cinema just fine while we wait for more anticipated releases like Snowpiercer or The Attorney. The fight scenes have been “Greengrass-ed” to hell and back, and I don’t expect it to have the staying power of films like Joint Security Area or The Man From Nowhere, but The Suspect is well worth adding to your line-up of films to watch all the same.
The Upside: Engaging (albeit familiar) script; action scenes are mostly good fun; interesting take on the politics of the North/South relationship
The Downside: Fight scenes are too choppily edited; runs too long for what it accomplishes
On the Side: Director Won Shin-yeon’s first feature was a horror film called Scary Hair.